When West Meets East, Part 3

The breeze in Newport, Rhode Island, was 10 to 15 knots, when it wasn’t 18 to 22. For  my entire two weeks on the East Coast in early June, the wind was warm and perfect; in Maine, in New Hampshire, and even off the rivers in Manhattan — a week before SailGP raced. Driving toward the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge in Rhode Island, I told a group of friends, none of whom were sailors, that Newport was considered the sailing capital of the country. “Why?” my friends naturally asked. I, who had never actually been here before, struggled to answer, and was fumbling with something about tradition and heritage when we reached the peak of the bridge, and caught our first glimpse of the water.

It was thick with sailboats. A fleet of big race boats with black carbon sails was rounding a mark, a fleet of small skiffs (29ers, I think) was racing not far away, a fleet of 420s or FJs was circling around a starting line, a gaggle of Optis was near shore, and every other square inch of water was dotted with sailboats, sailboats . . . sailboats.

Thank you, Newport, for answering “why” for me.

The Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge with a mere two sailboats instead of a gazillion.
© 2019 Wikipedia

That the sport and lifestyle of sailing might have an epicenter or a capital culminates in our discussion about what makes the East Coast appear to be so  “boaty.” Is it an inflated perception? Is it the East’s compact summer season? Is it some kind of tourist gimmick? Or is it all in our heads?

Newport itself was so absurdly charming that I felt like I’d stumbled into Disneyland’s New England Land. But the charm felt a bit manicured, and so a little manufactured. “Sailing” was represented, but only in retail form. There was a Helly Hansen and North Sails shop, but they weren’t selling foulies or jibs; it was strictly clothes. It was like a representation of sailing — a commercial for sailing and the commodification of the lifestyle — but not actually sailing itself.

With that said, it was still pretty cool to see bars sporting posters of big regattas, like the Volvo Ocean Race, which stopped in Newport in May 2018. (It reminded me of Shelter Island in San Diego, where I’m from).

The ideas and façades and the lifestyle.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

On his podcast Single-handed Sailing, circumnavigating legend Matt Rutherford mused on his own first visit to Newport. “Maybe it’s just an impression. Maybe it’s just the downtown part of Newport, or the harbor [said with an absurdly exaggerated Boston accent], but Jesus Christ is this place pretentious. I mean it’s so pretentious.” Rutherford reiterated that maybe these were just his first impressions of Newport. I would similarly qualify my initial reactions.

“For a long time, there’s sort of been this back and forth about who is the sailing capital of the United States of America. And, I don’t know, man, Newport might have us beat. I mean they definitely have bigger boats than we do. They have the Newport Shipyard, which has actually branded itself, which is fu@king hilarious. Like people are walking around with fleeces on with the shipyard logo. Everything up here just seems trendy.”

Known as the Ocean State, Rhode Island had an ode to waves — including an image on their license plates — that I did not expect to see in New England.

Taking an Uber from Newport to Bristol, our driver — who was born and raised in Newport — told a familiar story. Wealthy people hailing from other parts of the coast were buying up homes and turning them into summer vacation spots. Everything was becoming more expensive. “There used to be a few core families in Newport,” our driver said. “Most of them are gone.”

But Bristol, about half an hour away, was different. The town was more spread out, and didn’t seem to have the same aggressive sailing retailing. (Or maybe I missed it.) A group of friends and I ended up on a bar’s deck on the water. The breeze was solidly in the 20-plus range, enveloping Bristol and taking the edge off the summer New England sun. It was, in other words, perfect, near awe-inspiring weather. A few kiters and windsurfers reached back and forth just upwind of a packed mooring field. The water was blue and not brown (but still freezing-cold).

The scene in Bristol, Rhode Island could not have been more picture-perfect for sailors.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

I chatted with a couple who moved to Bristol from Virginia a few years ago. They loved Rhode Island, they said. Yes, the winters could be tough, but this, this was the payoff. The couple said that Bristol was full of fishermen, contractors and other working-class people. They said that all of their friends and acquaintances sailed in some way.

Walked right past the Herreshoff Marine Museum & America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol. That’s Mighty Mary from the 1995 America’s Cup in San Diego. It was pretty cool to just stumble onto a piece of sailing history — and something from my youth, no less.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

So what is it about the East Coast? Does it have any special claim to the lifestyle and sport of sailing? The appeal, or even frenzy, of a short season is undeniable. Coming over the Newport Bridge, it was obvious, even dramatic the way sailors were getting it while the getting was good.

“The Maine boating season is Memorial Day through Labor Day,” wrote reader Michael Rosauer in response to part 1 of this series (we’ll publish a number of letters we’ve received in the August issue). “This results in generally greater intensity during the short, but warm, summer boating season in New England.” There is no denying the East’s weather and splendid geography. It’s only obvious that a boaty culture would naturally grow around such inherent characteristics.

But, in the end, none of that really matters. Reader Paolo Sheaffer said it best. “Growing up in Carpinteria, most of my early sailing was in Santa Barbara. I would say Santa Barbara is rather boaty. Tiburon is boaty. Texas is boaty, but on a less traditional level, save for small pockets with strong New England influences. To sum up, respect for tradition is stronger in some areas, but enthusiasm is universal.

“Do we invent our own boaty culture, or import from afar?”

If home is where the heart is, then so-called sailing capitals can be whereever the sailors are. To us, the lifestyle is about the moments between sailors, boats and water. That’s not to say that places like Newport, San Diego, Annapolis, Port Townsend, and even pockets of San Francisco don’t have rich sailing cultures, or that they’re not worthy of a visit. We look forward to sailing to all of them. But we most look forward to sailing away.

Any final thoughts? Please comment below, or email us here.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Lu Abel 11 months ago

    Tim Henry’s comments are spot on. I sailed in Narraganset Bay and environs for 25 years before moving to the Bay Area 25 years ago. When I first sailed into Newport it was adjacent to a still active Navy base (like SF Bay, the Navy claimed a large chunk of Narragansett Bay during WW II), and downtown Newport consisted of four bars and an Army/Navy surplus store. There were few mooring buoys in Newport Harbor and you could easily anchor a short dinghy row from downtown. Over the years I watched downtown turn into the tourist trap Tim describes. Oh, and the harbor became so filled with mooring buoys that the only place one could anchor is a corner of the harbor distant from the waterfront and swept by foul currents.

    On the other hand, the rest of Narragansett Bay (including Bristol) is a great place to sail. Many beautiful coves where one can anchor and just enjoy beautiful surroundings. I kept saying “One of these days I’ll tire of this place” and it never happened.

    One of the things that Tim has either discovered or will discover is the beauty and “boatability” of the New England coast. Unlike California’s bleak and uninviting coast, the New England coast is inviting with gentle winds, scenic shores, and with few exceptions a picturesque harbor to anchor in every five or ten miles up the coast.

    Yeah, there’s winter. You put your boat in the water in late April or early May and haul it for the winter in October or early November. But that also gives you time to work on your boat — summer is for sailing and winter is repairs and upgrades. As I have discovered, it’s too easy too feel “manana” in California.

  2. Avatar
    Lu Abel 11 months ago

    Ever wonder why a roughly rectangular state with other states on three of its four sides is called Rhode ISLAND?

    To answer that, you have to go back to colonial times and the American Revolution. The full name of Rhode Island is The State of Providence Plantation and Rhode Island. Aha, two spots. Providence Plantation is now the state capital, the city of Providence. But nowhere can I find this island called “Rhode.” That’s because Rhode Island has reverted to its Native American name, Aquidneck Island. Aquidneck is the largest island in Narraganset Bay. Newport (the one in Rhode Island, not that place in SoCal) occupies the bottom end of the island. But there are other towns and a thriving marine-oriented industry with names like J-Boats, Tillitson-Pearson, and North Sails.

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